MARSHALL - On Friday in honor of Pearl Harbor Day, the Marshall-Lyon County Library hosted a talk by the Minnesota author of "The Oranges Are Sweet," the life story of a fighter pilot from Hill City whose life was tragically cut short in World War II.
Paul M. Sailer is the Human Services director for Wadena County and grew up hearing stories about Major Don Beerbower, a school friend of his father.
"My dad and Beerbower both grew up in Hill City," Sailer said. "My dad showed me a school picture of him when he was 11 years old and told me, 'He was a real hero.'"
Photo by Steve Browne
Paul M. Sailer author of “The Oranges Are Sweet,” the story of Minnesota fighter pilot Don Beerbower, gave a presentation and signed books at the Marshall-Lyon County Library on Friday.
In his short life, Beerbower became the top Minnesota fighter pilot in the top fighter squadron in the European Theater.
He was among a group chosen to fly the new P-51 Mustangs, the first fighter planes with enough range to escort bombers all the way into Germany and back.
"I grew up respecting the sacrifice of the World War II men and women," Sailer said. "I believe it is important to remember the stories of courage and duty. It is a part of what it is to be American."
An excerpt from Paul Sailer's interview with Lt. William Healy, who was stationed at Hickam Field when the Japanese hit several military targets at Pearl Harbor:
It was one of those Sunday mornings when you're lying awake in bed, and you haven't gotten up yet, and off in the distance there's a "Boomity, boomity, boomity, boom!" And my wife said, "What's that?" I said, "Well, it's the Coast Defense guns. They shoot them once in a while to see if they work. They're just shooting them off." Then I got out of bed and was standing at the window. Our bedroom window faced the flying line, and this airplane came diving down, "Vvvrrrraaaaarrrrrrr!" and I said, "Betty, come here, the Navy's going to buzz the field." The Navy used to show off to the Air Force when an aircraft carrier was coming in, doing the slow roll and stuff over the field to show what brave pilots they were. But this airplane came down and dropped a bomb right on the hangers [sic] two blocks away. And then they came from different directions dropping bombs, and there was this big rumble, which was probably the torpedoes over at Pearl Harbor, adjacent to Hickam Field. So I took my wife down to a little basement in our apartment and there were all the other wives staying there, with their eyes like saucers. I strapped on my trusty .45 caliber pistol and went to see if I could do anything. Our hanger [sic] on the flying line was burning. There (wasn't anything) you could do with that so I decided to go to squadron headquarters, which was in a big barracks building, several blocks away. (I) walked over there. Everybody was running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Nothing sensible was happening, but they said there was going to be a meeting of the squadron people back at my apartment building, so I had to go all the way back there. So we met, then went out to the flight line to try and do something useful, but there really wasn't much (we could do).
Sailer said he had thought his experience as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam gave him an insight into air war, but his research led him to appreciate the emotions of those left behind and the sheer scope of the war.
"The immensity of the air war in the European Theater is hard for us to conceive of today," Sailer said. "Imagine 1,000 B17 and B24 Liberator bombers, 4,000 howling turbine engines, escorted by 500 fighters. What it must have felt and sounded like to those on the ground."
Maj. Don Beerbower died while strafing a German aerodrome. He left behind his wife, Elaine, and a daughter who never knew her father. His widow, daughter, grand-daughter and surviving friends helped Sailer in his research and allowed him access to Beerbower's journal and letters.
"The Oranges are Sweet" refers to a code phrase that ground control in England used to tell returning pilots that the weather was clear at the airfield.